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Application Tip #2 from the Director of Admissions

Manage the recommendation process.

Image of Soojin Kwon Koh

Soojin Kwon is the director of admissions at the Ross School of Business. Since joining the Michigan Ross admissions team in 2004, Soojin has evaluated thousands of applications. She knows what makes applications stand out, and below she shares advice on how to put your best application forward.

See Soojin's first piece of advice: Commit to a training plan for the GMAT or GRE.

Soojin’s second piece of advice: Manage the recommendation process.

What does this advice mean?

Recommendations can seem a bit daunting because they are the only part of your business school application that you do not directly control. Instead, you are counting on someone else to speak to your skills and personal attributes. In fact, that’s exactly what makes them useful to the Admissions Committee. Recommendations provide a valuable third-person perspective on your professional accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses, personal characteristics, and potential fit with our community. However, it’s still important that you manage the recommendation process in a number of ways:

  1. Be Smart about choosing your recommenders: You should pick someone who knows you well, values your work, is committed to your success, and is willing to take the time to write a detailed recommendation that is supported by examples. You may be surprised to know that we occasionally see recommendations that are not supportive, which reflects poorly on the applicant’s self-awareness and judgment.
  2. Choose substance over title: In other words, don’t ask your CEO to be your recommender unless you have worked directly with him/her for a significant amount of time. Your CEO probably will not know you well nor have the time to write a substantive letter. The admissions committee would rather receive a recommendation from a mid-level manager that has depth, substance, and supportive examples than a generic recommendation from someone higher up in your organization.
  3. Go with professional relationships: We prefer to receive recommendations from direct supervisors (from both past and present jobs) rather than professors, peers, or family friends. However, we recognize that asking a direct supervisor is not always possible. In these situations, we suggest asking a work mentor, an unofficial supervisor, or a client. Some candidates work for a family business, are entrepreneurs, or find themselves between jobs. In lieu of a direct supervisor, we suggest asking an investor or a major client who has worked with you for a period of time, or perhaps a previous employer. If you are concerned about how we might perceive your choice of recommender, you may want to use our optional essay to address the topic.
  4. Give your recommenders the information they need: Set up a time to meet with your recommenders to give them context on why you want an MBA. If you haven’t seen your recommender for a while, make sure he/she is up to speed on what you’ve been doing lately — provide a current copy of your resume and a recent performance review. While the recommendation must be written in your recommenders’ own words, those words will come easier once you’ve provided context and reference information. But don’t prepare your recommenders so extensively that their recommendations repeat what you’ve discussed in your essays. You also want to ensure that the two recommendations don’t sound virtually identical; this would make us question the authorship.
  5. Provide ample lead time: Remember that all parts of your application must be submitted by the application deadline, including the recommendations. Since it is more difficult to control the timeline of a third party, give your recommenders plenty of lead time. It can be helpful to build in a buffer for yourself by providing them with a deadline well in advance of the actual application deadline. At a minimum, request that the recommendation be completed four weeks prior to the application deadline. You don’t want your recommenders to have only enough time to give one sentence answers to each question (which happens).

Keep the big picture in mind.
Recommendations only are one piece of your application. Ultimately, you cannot control what your recommenders write, and the admissions committee recognizes that fact. However, you do control the choice of recommenders and how well you prepare them to write your recommendations. Picking the right people and making the process easy for them will help maximize your chances for success.